02 August 2018

#WriteCBC: Writing tip and writing task from Laura Marshall

Laura Marshall, author
by Anna Davis Events, Writing Tips

Yes, it’s that time already! Welcome to the second of our monthly #WriteCBC day-long Twitter challenges! Today – Thursday 2nd August – bestselling author and CBC alumna Laura Marshall is in the hot seat with a writing tip and task. Join in on Twitter @cbcreative to potentially win a place on one of our 6-week online courses – or just for fun! Read this blog to find out how to play, and the rules …

Laura took our 3-month novel-writing course in London – where she wrote the first draft of her debut psychological thriller. From the off she had a great idea, which immediately caught the attention of our agents in pitching sessions. Indeed, I vividly remember telling her, at her end-of-course tutorial, that I thought she had an excellent chance of getting a publishing deal if she could write her novel quickly and call it Friend Request. Laura did just that – and was snapped up by CB agent  Felicity Blunt – gaining a great deal with Little Brown in the UK, and then further deals in the UK and across the world. Friend Request was a big bestseller, and recently Laura has followed up with a second psychological suspense novel, Three Little Lies. We’re delighted that she’s agreed to take part in #WriteCBC!

So – without further ado, here is her writing tip:

Try hooking your reader in to your story by planting something unusual/wrong in the everyday – overturning expectations & inviting questions: eg in my 1st novel, the protagonist gets a FB friend request (normal) from a friend who died years ago (eh?) …

Now, I’m forever banging on to our students about the importance of writing a strong opening which intrigues the reader. It’s a very good thing when the opening of a novel asks a question which readers will want to know the answer to – and which will make them want to keep reading in order to find the answer. There are lots of ways of doing this, but one very effective technique is to present a situation which appears to be ordinary, workaday – very much the sort of thing we might encounter in our normal lives – and then to twist it into something unusual and mysterious – to take it somewhere you’re not expecting it to go, inviting the reader to try to figure out what’s really going on … For instance:

A woman (let’s call her Sue) sits on a crowded train, listening to another woman, sitting opposite, telling someone (presumably her partner) on the phone that it’s been a bad journey but she’ll be getting off the train in about 15 minutes – and that she has bought some vegetables to make a stir-fry when she gets back, and a nice bottle of white wine which just needs to chill for a few minutes. Sue is irritated by this woman – she’s talking really loudly into the phone and for longer than necessary. Her bag of groceries is on the floor, where there isn’t really room for it – rather than on her lap – and she has in fact put it down on top of Sue’s toes. Indeed she’s already trodden hard on Sue’s left foot when she shoved in front of her, getting on the train. This is a woman who doesn’t think for a second of the people around her – she has no respect for their personal space. Sue can’t stand this type of selfish commuter – of which there are way too many  …

Sound familiar?

But then, as the train pulls into the next station, only moments later, the woman quite suddenly ends her phone call, jumps up, and – treading on everyone all around her as she goes – blunders and shoves her way straight off the train, and is last seen running from the platform at full pelt. Everyone is staring out the window after her as the train pulls away. The carrier bag of groceries is still sitting on Sue’s feet …

So there’s the unexpected twist – the moment that the story departs from the familiar, everyday scenario – leaving us, along with Sue, wondering: Why has the woman gone dashing off the train in this way? We might start speculating – is she running away from someone she’d spotted on the train? Or, conversely, is she chasing after someone she’d spotted on the platform? Or has she quite suddenly acted on impulse – or out of madness – and made some strange and spontaneous break from her normal routine?

Also – does that carrier bag contain only vegetables and a bottle of wine – or is there something else in there?

So, that’s my example. Laura had a very compelling one of her own, in the opening of that first novel of hers: A woman logs onto Facebook to discover that she has a friend request from someone she knows – an old schoolfriend who she hasn’t seen for years. That’s the familiar scenario – it’s one that we can absolutely relate to. Here comes the twist: But this friend has been dead for many years …  Straight away we want to know more. How is a dead girl sending Facebook friend requests to our protagonist? Did she really die? Or has the request been sent by someone else? And if so, why?

See how this works?

Here is Laura’s task:

Write the opening to a story/novel in which a normal everyday activity or event (something readers can relate to) is subverted in an intriguing and/or dramatic way – giving rise to story and leaving the reader wanting answers; eager to read on

So what Laura would like you to do is to think of a scenario which has the appearance of normality, but which isn’t normal at all – the everyday subverted.

And we’d like you to go further than my example – all I’ve done is to set out a potential scenario. For your task, we want you to come up with yours but also to write it as though it were the actual opening to a novel or story – ie, to bring the scenario fully to life as fiction.

And all this has to be done in the space of a tweet! Not easy, but I reckon you’re up to the challenge … Who knows, maybe some of you will even come up with something that you’ll want to go on writing …

Winner: Tracey @ThisPhoenix71 


I love listening to Ben singing in the morning. He sings between mouthfuls of porridge, swinging his legs to the tune. It’s a new song today that I don’t recognise “Is that from nursery?” I ask sitting next to him with my coffee. “No. The man in my room sings it.”

We loved this one. I completely identify with the ‘normal’ scenario – the child singing songs you don’t know. It’s weird when it happens, because when they’re really tiny, you (the parent) feels you are their source of all information and knowledge. Their only frame of reference is what you teach them and show them. Then they go out into the world … I remember my daughter singing ‘Wind the bobbin up’ and doing a complex set of hand gestures at a very young age, and it amused and fascinated me because it wasn’t a song that I knew – it came from the nursery – from HER world, not mine.  So – yes – that’s the ‘normal’ scenario – but then, in Tracey’s writing task, comes the utterly chilling twist – the man in the child’s room … A supernatural and really quite terrifying turn …

Well done, Tracey! You win a free place on one of our 6-week courses. Runners-up – getting a £50 discount on our courses:

Clair Kerry @clairwithoutane

“Stephen, right?” How else could I disarm him? The milk aisle was not the natural environment for the type of conversation we needed. I know that now, but he’d never know that I waited for him. Patiently, calmly, despite the last time we’d been thrown together.

Claire @mj_film


She pulled the nylon tights over her skin gently, trying not to cause a ladder. They were too thin. ‘I should have gotten a higher denier’ she said, the material giving way beneath her fingers. ’Told you we’d be better off with masks’ said Greg, loading the shotgun.

Great work all of you – and indeed big thanks to everyone who took part and who made this judging so frenziedly difficult! Hope we’ll see you next time … Next #WriteCBC is 11AM on Thurs 6th September! Have a great month and happy writing.


You can read more of Laura’s writing tips here.

Read Laura’s best-selling novel Friend Request or her latest novel Three Little Lies

There’s lots of advice advice writing a novel on our 6-week online courses designed to help you at 3 stages of the novel-writing process: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel or Edit & Pitch Your Novel.

Perhaps you’re writing a novel and are interested in taking one of our selective entry creative writing courses (like Laura did) we are currently open for applications to our Autumn 3-month courses – in London with Charlotte Mendelson, or online with Nikita Lalwani.

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